The Haints Old Time Stringband,
Shout Monah
(independent, 2009)

Based in British Columbia, the Haints Old Time Stringband revives 14 traditional songs and tunes and offer up one in-the-tradition original, the lovely waltz "Life's Fortune," composed by fiddler Erynn Marshall. I hope I'm not telling you something you already know when I pause to explain that "Haint," derived from "haunt," is an Appalachian term for ghost. The Haints -- the musicians, not the revenants -- see themselves as preservers of the spirit of long-dead performers.

The trio consists of Marshall and married couple Jason (banjo, guitar, banjo-uke) and Pharis (guitar) Romero, joined occasionally on Shout Monah by fiddler/bassist Daniel Lapp. Pharis does most of the lead singing, while Jason handles the bloody-minded "Lowe Bonnie" and the darkly comic 1920s-era "Riley the Furniture Man," still among my all-time favorite topical folk songs since my first hearing of it more than three decades ago.

Pharis takes vocal command of a range of material, from "Milwaukee Blues" (a hobo song associated with Charlie Poole, it's the most immediately recognizable piece on the disc) to the relatively arcane bully ballad "Bob McKinney." I've heard the latter dozens of times on Henry Thomas's 1928 recording but for some reason never paid much attention to it, possibly because I was more interested in other Thomas songs. Hearing the Haints' version -- which stands out even amid the album's high cotton -- I belatedly understand I must have been missing something. Not that the Haints are simply channeling Thomas. Their version is very much their own, rendered with a desolate intensity that captures the title character's sociopathic heart even as it reminds the listener that this is a really nice melody.

Approximately half of the cuts are fiddle tunes, tastefully chosen and played with impressive subtlety of tone as if the Haints were living inside them, not simply recreating them from a comfortable distance. "Eadle Alley," in any event, was learned directly from Marshall's mentor, the late West Virginia fiddler Melvin Wine.

Participants in the current stringband revival fall into two categories: the traditionalists and the revisionists, the latter employing the tradition as a launching pad for modern exploration and expression. The Haints take the more risky first approach, too often resulting in what might be called -- pardon the oxymoron -- sterile reproduction. It requires both massive knowledge and masterly chops to pull off what the Haints do, which is not to try to escape from the old style but to burrow into it and find something yet undiscovered -- to make it, you might say, even deeper and truer than it already is.

Beyond that, there is an attractive warmth and sweetness to their sound. I don't mean to suggest sentimentality. Not at all. But their affection for the venerable rural-Southern songs, singers, and tunes is palpable. It makes Shout Monah not just riveting, though it certainly is that, but sort of, well, lovable.

review by
Jerome Clark

3 April 2010

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